Interview: Kevin Wilson Jr. On the Making of his Powerful Oscar contender ‘My Nephew Emmett’

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The tragic story of Emmett Till has long been recognized as a significant catalyst for the African-American Civil Rights Movement. His brutal murder in 1955 Mississippi brought a much needed spotlight to the severity of racist violence in the United States, forever ensconcing the then 14-year old as a martyr for civil rights. With his short film “My Nephew Emmett“, writer-director Kevin Wilson Jr. revisits this horrific incident from the atypical perspective of Emmett’s uncle. Featuring a superb performance by L.B. Williams, this powerful film has already won the Student Academy Award, ahead of making the Oscar shortlist for Best Live Action short. It was therefore an honor to speak with the talented Kevin Wilson Jr. as we discussed the importance of the Emmett Till story and his aspirations as a rising filmmaker.

Shane Slater: First, let me congratulate on such a powerful film, especially coming from a student filmmaker. What inspired you to get into filmmaking?

Kevin Wilson: Thank you so much! That really means so much because all I ever wanted to do was make a short film that folks could connect with and one that would motivate people to do more research about Emmett’s story and its impact on our society. I really started making films because of Emmett’s story. I was in college acting in various plays on campus and because I was a journalism major and not a theater major, I was told that I needed to transition into the theater department if I wanted to continue acting.

Instead of making that transition, I wrote my own play about the story of Emmett Till. I wanted to tell that story at that time specifically because in my conversations with people around campus, I started to realize that not as many people were aware of the deep influence Emmett’s death had on the American Civil Rights Movement as I’d hoped. My University, North Carolina A&T Sate University gave me $10,000 to tell the story. And my team and I were fortunately successful. We had multiple sold out performances and it was then that I realized the power of writing, crafting a story, and having control of your own narrative. I enjoyed the freedom and joy that came with writing/directing and I enjoyed being a leader. That same summer, I watched “Do The Right Thing” at least 70 times and began to study the works of many directors. Years later, I applied to NYU and here I am now!

SS: The Emmett Till story was so important to the civil rights movement. Did you feel any pressure in telling this story?

KW: I believe there’s pressure that comes along with telling any true story, especially when folks who are intimately connected to the story are still alive, because you want to get it right. You don’t want people to feel exploited or offended. At the same time however, you want to feel the freedom to make your piece of art personal. At least I did in this case. Whenever I’m making a film, my goal is to make it as personal and honest as possible. I want whatever I do to be unique and specific to the way I see the world.

I’m very fortunate with “My Nephew Emmett” to have had Emmett’s family view the film and approve of it. So that was a breath of fresh air. I was particularly nervous because the family have had experiences where over the decades, they’ve encountered different artists who’ve used this story for their own personal advancement. This includes folks who have conducted interviews with various journalists as if they were present during the incident in 1955, when in fact they were not. So there was definitely pressure to not become part of that problem. The good thing though is that my intentions have been pure from the beginning. I’ve always just wanted to keep the conversation about Emmett Till alive.

SS: L.B. Williams brings such quiet gravitas to the lead role. How did you get him involved with the film?

KW: L.B. Williams was a genius. I’m so fortunate to have had him on this film. It simply would’ve been a different film without him. One night I was watching “Juice” by Ernest Dickerson and there was a scene where Tupac’s character walked into a room and encountered his father who was sitting on a chair staring. Perhaps out of a window or at a television. There was a story behind this man’s eyes and he looked so tense and interesting just sitting there. Because I knew in “My Nephew Emmett”, Mose would just be sitting in solitude for most of the film, I knew I needed an actor who could look as interesting sitting as L.B. did.

It took me a while, but I found contact information for L.B. and we met for coffee a couple of times. I didn’t even need to audition him. Based on our conversations, I knew he was the right one for the part. There was something about his eyes, something he was dealing with, that was just so compelling. He’d later tell me that he was suffering from cancer and not long after we finished the film, he passed away. It was tragic because he never had the opportunity to see any of the public responses to the film. He wasn’t able to be physically present for the New York Film Festival or the Student Academy Awards. I do however feel that he was with us in spirit. I can feel his spiritual presence even right now.

SS: How did you arrive at the final script, especially that sentiment of Emmett’s attackers feeling a sense of duty with that line “you think this is fun for me?”

KW: In my discussions with Dane Rhodes and Ethan Leaverton who portrayed J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, we came to the conclusion that these men were doing what they felt they had to do. They were a disgusting product of their time and environment. Some white men, especially those living in Mississippi felt they had no other choice but to “punish” black people who defied their unwritten Jim Crow Laws. They felt if they hadn’t, they’d disrupt the so-called “natural order” of things.

That line specifically was written on set, not in the script. When we were shooting the scene, the actors were so deep in the moment that we started trying new movements and new lines each take. So there’s a lot that J.W. said to Mose that we couldn’t put in. I tried to create a certain level of freedom on set where the characters could breath through the actor’s lungs, where the actors would naturally speak the words the actual characters would’ve spoken.

SS: You’ve spent so much time with this story through your play and this short film. Do you have any plans to make it into a feature film?

KW: I don’t have any plans to make it into a feature film at the moment because there are a number of Emmett Till feature film projects already in development and one in particular is in pre-production. I’d love to be involved in that in some way, even if I’m just moving c-stands or carrying sandbags. I just want to be a part of the movement to bring this story to the big screen.

SS: What kinds of films can we expect from you the future?

KW: I want to tell stories that are personal, filled with tension, and ones in which I can find my way to the heart of a human being. I’ve been into science fiction a lot lately, so I really hope to explore that genre a lot throughout my career. I’d like to make a lot of dramas and thrillers as well. I’ve written a psychological thriller that I plan to shoot this summer so I’m very excited about that. I want to engage in every aspect of the medium, making feature films, television shows, commercials, documentaries, etc. I want to be creating at every moment. That’s what I feel I was born to do.

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MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |

ANIMATED SHORT | DOCUMENTARY SHORT | LIVE ACTION SHORT |